Heroes interrupted: Volume One in retrospect
Where does it come from—this quest, this need to solve life’s mysteries when the simplest of questions can never be answered?
The superhuman hero genre has historically existed in pulp comics and camp tv and film aimed at a preadolescent audience. Saving the bulk of screen time for use and abuse of powers and the epic battles that spawns, backstory and motivation only had a place in Very Special Episodes/Issues that made little sense. I have fond memories of an 80s Superman cartoon that revealed Lex Luther had been a farmer with red hair who somehow caught fire in his field, and when Supes blew out the fire with his super lung capacity, he blew away all of Lex’s hair as well. Psychotically angered by his baldness, he swore vengeance on all superheroes, and, I assume, earned several scientific and engineering degrees on special vendetta scholarships to make the jump from man of the plow to genius supervillian. Ah, revenge: the best reason to better oneself.
Whether intended or a side effect of a skimpy FX budget, NBC’s Heroes takes the opposite tack. Ordinary people discover that they have extraordinary abilities, but find reasons not to use them. Plots often turn on the practical and psychological reasons why most people would fight to remain ordinary, not immediately abandon the mortgage, squeeze into spandex, and start looking for a chance to show off.
For instance: Niki Sanders, the single mother under a lot of stress. One of her many pressing issues is the friendly representatives of organised crime threatening both her knees and her virtue. There are people who might welcome a psychotically violent invisible protector in such straits, but she isn’t one of them.
For reasons that become more obvious later, Niki is terrified of violence, particularly if she’s the instrument. In fact, for reasons that become clearer in a later episode’s flashback, she’s resistant to being in conflict with other people at all, attempting to flirt and cajole her way through disputes. When she does come close to losing emotional control (when insulted by Ando via lasvegasniki.com, when afraid that Micah’s in trouble, and when the headmaster of Micah’s snobfest refuses to refund her donation), she sees ‘someone else’ in nearby mirrors, a separate person to make the dangerous actions. When she is finally unable to escape, she is only able to defend herself by sprogging a separate personality to do so, and like most repressed impulses, this one bursts forth grotesquely out of proportion to need.
While her life gets no less dangerous, particularly in her association with the mysterious Mr Linderman, Niki will only continue to resist the physical strength she needs, and see her amoral alter-ego Jessica as only another enemy. Post-Volume 2, it seems that she’s only able to act heroically as herself, or at least beat up a bad guy, when she’s been relieved of her inhuman strength.
Stoned hands are the devil’s playthings
Similarly, the artist Isaac Mendez is first shown destroying his own work, a painting of a masculine hand clutching a glass of boiling liquid. He painted it while high on heroin, an addiction he’s been struggling with for some time, and is convinced it and others foretell the future—or perhaps plant the seeds of destructive events that otherwise would never have come to pass.
Isaac is another character who could desperately use something like his gift. His heroin addiction threatens to send his promising career spanning the commercial and fine art worlds into a tailspin, along with his relationship and grip on reality. By rejecting his graphic foresight, Isaac not only loses the sustaining joy of creating but also the potential for clarity.
Unknowing, Isaac has been recording bits of the future for some time, possibly for his entire artistic career. Perhaps his increasing heroin use strengthened the ability or made it unstable, focusing only on the immediate future and just on senseless, destructive events. In the first of many misapprehensions, he sees this as an effect of the drug, and therefore just as dangerous, poisonous, and damning as street-quality heroin.
It’s not overly surprising then that he should end his introduction trying to overdose on both and escape the entire mess, discovering instead a horribly future he’ll risk damnation to fight.
The flying shark and incredi-boy (go home, Buddy)
Nathan Petrelli, we discover in the episode’s final moment, is another hero in denial. He can fly—or possibly, hover—and not very well. He saves his brother’s life after repeatedly squishing Peter’s enthusiastic insistence that he’s special: “Do not pull a Roger Clinton on me, man.”
Nathan hides his ability—and his brother, when possible—to avoid tarring his election run with more scandal, but also because he just doesn’t need it. He’s an admitted shark, a magnificent bastard with a brilliant political career ahead of him, not to mention his own family and a bottomless checking account. The gift of flying is a useless attribute that would only interfere with perfection.
The only characters enthusiastic about ubermench abilities are those without obvious traits, like Peter Petrelli. Peter has fantastic dreams of flying that convince him he’s meant to be more special than the rest of humanity, and craves a thumbs-up from his successful big brother to support that.
Unfortunately, I find myself disliking the lesser Petrelli, even though I was completely with him as the centre of the journey at the time. Despite Simone’s exposition that he’s “got a real gift” for nursing, his actions reveal a terrible medical professional far more interested in his own navel-gazing than his dying patients. In his first conversation, he brushes aside the grieving daughter’s concern for first her father and then her boyfriend to first hit on her, then abandon both patients to spend more time obsessing about his longed-for destiny.
It feels more like narcissism than empathy, caring for others only in hopes of validation.
The strength of a thousand expositions
Thus I remain amused by Mohinder Suresh’s first line, directly following Peter’s introduction: “Man is a narcissistic species by nature.” He’s in his element, pontificating knowledgably to a class (ignoring his reiteration of the disproven trope than man uses only 10% of his brain), championing the superiority of the cockroach, and so obviously waiting for something incredible to happen.
In retrospect, it’s obvious why Sendhil Ramamurthy has the voiceover duties—Mohinder will lecture anyone, anytime, on a vast range of subjects from genetics to evolution. In this episode alone, he jumps to illuminate bored grad students, a friend of his father’s, and a random black hole of emotional need who flags down his cab. There’s no chance the captive viewers would be spared.
Mohinder is an early parallel to Peter, yearning to be special and earn the approving attention of his family idol. I’m curious now how their decisions will line up through the rest of the episodes, if Peter’s more obvious right and wrong decisions will illuminate Mohinder’s ambiguous paths.
Finally, there’s the early favourite, Hiro Nakamura, who takes an inkling of ability and spins a fantasy world of heroics around it—then proceeds to live up to his expectations. In one day, he moves from struggling to hold back one second to transporting himself across the world. And, he’s chuffed with himself, unconcerned for the many potential consequences.
Later, Hiro will live up to the prevalent attitude to his powers all too well, but for now he’s fun. Here’s the thing, though—in retrospect, Hiro’s a really odd duck, nearly a self-hating Japanese person. All of his references are to Western, specifically American, archetypes, Star Trek and Superman and X-Men. Given that his cultural background is so rich in contemporary super-human heroes, why wouldn’t he and Ando reference Sailor Moon or Steam Detectives?
On one level it’s obvious that much of a US audience wouldn’t recognise the name Tuxedo Kamen, for example, the way they would Mr Spock—but it does odden up his cultural coding. Aside from a childhood fondness for Takezo Kensei, he focuses on western Baby Boomer-era fantasy culture. Is there a Japanese equivalent for the otaku kid who rejects the ‘inferior’ fantasy worlds of western culture, and, if so, would they also lose in a fight with any given goth child?
Ripe for retcon
Angela Petrelli: daffy recently widowed mother jumping in where Winona Ryder left off in the rich white girl shoplifting finals, or spider at the centre of a Big Bad web?
Given spoilery spoilers spoiling the unspoiled, I’m really looking forward to the inevitable flashback episode, and fearful it’ll resemble a goofy Philip K Dick adaptation.